Engineers Develop a Whole New Way to Use Curiosity’s Drill After a Recent Hardware Failure

Since it landed on Mars in 2012, the Curiosity rover has used its drill to gather samples from a total of 15 sites. These samples are then deposited into two of Curiosity’s laboratory instruments – the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) or the Chemistry and Mineralogy X-ray Diffraction (CheMin) instrument – where they are examined to tell us more about the Red Planet’s history and evolution.

Unfortunately, in December of 2016, a key part of the drill stopped working when a faulty motor prevented the bit from extending and retracting between its two stabilizers. After managing to get the bit to extend after months of work, the Curiosity team has developed a new method for drilling that does not require stabilizers. The new method was recently tested and has been proven to be effective.

The new method involves freehand drilling, where the drill bit remains extended and the entire arm is used to push the drill forward. While this is happening, the rover’s force sensor – which was originally included to stop the rover’s arm if it received a high-force jolt – is used to takes measurements. This prevents the drill bit from drifting sideways and getting stuck in rock, as well as providing the rover with a sense of touch.

NASA’s Curiosity rover raised robotic arm with drill pointed skyward while exploring Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The test drill took place at a site called Lake Orcadie, which is located in the upper Vera Rubin Ridge – where Curiosity is currently located. The resulting hole, which was about 1 cm (half an inch) deep was not enough to produce a scientific sample, but indicated that the new method worked. Compared to the previous method, which was like a drill press, the new method is far more freehand.

As Steven Lee, the deputy project manager of the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained:

“We’re now drilling on Mars more like the way you do at home. Humans are pretty good at re-centering the drill, almost without thinking about it. Programming Curiosity to do this by itself was challenging — especially when it wasn’t designed to do that.”

This new method was the result of months of hard work by JPL engineers, who practiced the technique using their testbed – a near-exact replica of Curiosity. But as Doug Klein of JPL, one of Curiosity’s sampling engineers, indicated, “This is a really good sign for the new drilling method. Next, we have to drill a full-depth hole and demonstrate our new techniques for delivering the sample to Curiosity’s two onboard labs.”

This side-by-side comparison shows the X-ray diffraction patterns of two different samples collected from the Martian surface by NASA’s Curiosity rover, as obtained by Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames

Of course, there are some drawbacks to this new method. For one, leaving the drill in its extended position means that it no longer has access to the device that sieves and portions rock powder before delivering it to the rover’s Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) instrumet. To address this, the engineers at JPL had to invent a new way to deposit the powder without this device.

Here too, the engineers at JPL tested the method here on Earth. It consists of the drill shaking out the grains from its bit in order to deposit the sand directly in the CHIMRA instrument. While the tests have been successful here on Earth, it remains to be seen if this will work on Mars. Given that both atmospheric conditions and gravity are very different on the Red Planet, it remains to be seen if this will work there.

This drill test was the first of many that are planned. And while this first test didn’t produce a full sample, Curiosity’s science team is confident that this is a positive step towards the resumption of regular drilling. If the method proves effective, the team hopes to collect multiple samples from Vera Rubin Ridge, especially from the upper side. This area contains both gray and red rocks, the latter of which are rich in minerals that form in the presence of water.

Samples drilled from these rocks are expected to shed light on the origin of the ridge and its interaction with water. In the days ahead, Curiosity’s engineers will evaluate the results and likely attempt another drill test nearby. If enough sample is collected, they will use the rover’s Mastcam to attempt to portion the sample out and determine how much powder can be shaken from the drill bit.

Further Reading: NASA

Drilling at Unfathomable Alien Landscapes – All in a Sols (Day’s) Work for Curiosity

Dramatic wide angle mosaic view of butte  with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding  in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp with distant view to rim of Gale crater, taken by Curiosity rover’s Mastcam high resolution cameras.  This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016 and stitched by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic wide angle mosaic view of butte with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp with distant view to rim of Gale crater, taken by Curiosity rover’s Mastcam high resolution cameras. This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016 and stitched by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Our beyond magnificent Curiosity rover has just finished her latest Red Planet drilling campaign – at the rock target called “Quela” – into the simply unfathomable alien landscapes she is currently exploring at the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp. And it’s all in a Sols (or Martian Day’s) work for our intrepid Curiosity!

“These images are literally out of this world.. I don’t think I have seen anything like them on Earth!” Jim Green, Planetary Sciences Director at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., explained to Universe Today.

The “Murray Buttes” region is just chock full of the most stunning panoramic vistas that NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover has come upon to date. Observe and enjoy them in our exclusive new photo mosaics above and below.

“We always try to find some sort of Earth analog but these make exploring another world all worth it!” Green gushed in glee.

They fill the latest incredible chapter in her thus far four year long quest to trek many miles (km) from the Bradbury landing site across the floor of Gale Crater to reach the base region of humongous Mount Sharp.

And these adventures are just a prelude to the even more glorious vistas she’ll investigate from now on – as she climbs higher and higher on an expedition to thoroughly examine the mountains sedimentary layers and unravel billions and billions of years of Mars geologic and climatic history.

Drilling holes into Mars during the Red Planet trek and carefully analyzing the pulverized samples with the rovers pair of miniaturized chemistry laboratories (SAM and CheMin) is the route to the answer of how and why Mars changed from a warmer and wetter planet in the ancient past to the cold, dry and desolate world we see today.

The rock target named “Quela” is located at the base of one of the buttes dubbed “Murray Butte number 12,” according to the latest mission update from Prof. John Bridges, a Curiosity rover science team member from the University of Leicester, England.

It took two tries to get the drilling done due to a technical issue, but all went well in the end and it was well worth the effort at a place never before explored by an emissary from Earth.

“The drill (successful at second attempt) is at Quela.”

The full depth drilling was completed on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 using the percussion drill at the terminus of the outstretched 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm – as confirmed by imaging and further illustrated in our navcam camera photo mosaic.

And that immediately provided valuable insight into climate change on Mars.

“You can see how red and oxidised the tailings are, suggesting changing environmental conditions as we progress through the Mt. Sharp foothills,” Bridges explained in the mission update.

Curiosity bore holes measure approximately 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) deep.

Quela drill hole bored by Curiosity rover on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 as seen in this collage of Mastcam and MAHLI raw color images taken on Sol 1465. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS. Collage: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Quela drill hole bored by Curiosity rover on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 as seen in this collage of Mastcam and MAHLI raw color images taken on Sol 1465. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS. Collage: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

To give you the context of the Murray Buttes region and the drilling at Quela, the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo has begun stitching together wide angle mosaic landscape views and up close views of the drilling using raw images from the variety of cameras at Curiosity’s disposal.

The next steps after boring into Quela were to “sieve the new sample, dump the unsieved fraction, and drop some of the sieved sample into CheMin,” says Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

“But first, ChemCam will acquire passive spectra of the Quela drill tailings and use its laser to measure the chemistry of the wall of the new drill hole and of bedrock targets “Camaxilo” and “Okakarara.” Right Mastcam images of these targets are also planned.”

“After sunset, MAHLI will use its LEDs to take images of the drill hole from various angles and of the CheMin inlet to confirm that the sample was successfully delivered. Finally, the APXS will be placed over the drill tailings for an overnight integration.”

The rover had approached the butte from the south side several sols earlier to get in place, plan for the drilling, take imagery to document stratigraphy and make compositional observations with the ChemCam laser instrument.

Curiosity drills into Quela rock target in the Murray Buttes region on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity drills into Quela rock target in the Murray Buttes region on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Sol after Sol the daily imagery transmitted back to eager researchers on Earth reveal spectacularly layered Martian rock formations in such exquisite detail that they look and feel just like America’s desert Southwest landscapes.

“These are the landforms that dominate the landscape at this point in the traverse – The Murray Buttes,” says Bridges.

Wide angle mosaic view shows spectacular buttes and layered sandstone in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mastcam cameras on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover.  This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1455, Sept. 9, 2016 and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Wide angle mosaic view shows spectacular buttes and layered sandstone in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mastcam cameras on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1455, Sept. 9, 2016 and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

What are the Murray Buttes?

“These are formed by a cap of hard aeolian rock that has been partially eroded back, overlying the Murray mudstone.”

The imagery of the Murray Buttes and mesas show them to be eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed.

Scanning around the Murray Buttes mosaics one sees finely layered rocks, sloping hillsides, the distant rim of Gale Crater barely visible through the dusty haze, dramatic hillside outcrops with sandstone layers exhibiting cross-bedding.

The presence of “cross-bedding” indicates that the sandstone was deposited by wind as migrating sand dunes, says the team.

Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Curiosity spent some six weeks or so traversing and exploring the Murray Buttes.

So after collecting all that great drilling data at Quela, the team is ready for even more spectacular new adventures!

“While the Murray Buttes were spectacular and interesting, it’s good to be back on the road again, as there is much more of Mt. Sharp to explore!” concludes Herkenhoff.

And the team is already commanding Curiosity to drive ahead in hot pursuit of the next drill target!

Dramatic hillside view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic hillside view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Three years ago, the team informally named the Murray Buttes site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

As of today, Sol 1470, September 24, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 355,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Wide angle mosaic shows lower region of Mount Sharp at center in between spectacular sloping hillsides  and layered rock outcrops of the Murray Buttes region in Gale Crater as imaged by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1451, Sept. 5, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Wide angle mosaic shows lower region of Mount Sharp at center in between spectacular sloping hillsides and layered rock outcrops of the Murray Buttes region in Gale Crater as imaged by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1451, Sept. 5, 2016 with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Quela drill hole bored by Curiosity rover on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 as seen in this Matscam color image taken the same Sol. Credit: NASSA/JPL/MSSS
Quela drill hole bored by Curiosity rover on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 as seen in this MAHLI arm camera raw color image taken the same Sol. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS
Curiosity drills into Quela rock target on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 in this navcam camera mosaic.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity drills into Quela rock target on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 in this navcam camera mosaic. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

More Evidence That Mars Lost Its Atmosphere

Although today Mars’ atmosphere is sparse and thin — barely 1% the density of Earth’s at sea level — scientists don’t believe that was always the case. The Red Planet likely had a much denser atmosphere similar to ours, long, long ago. So… what happened to it?

NASA’s Curiosity rover has now found strong evidence that Mars lost much of its atmosphere to space — just as many scientists have suspected. The findings were announced today at the EGU 2013 General Assembly in Vienna.

Curiosity's SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Curiosity’s SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity’s microwave oven-sized Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument analyzed an atmosphere sample last week using a process that concentrates selected gases. The results provided the most precise measurements ever made of isotopes of argon in the Martian atmosphere.

Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights.

“We found arguably the clearest and most robust signature of atmospheric loss on Mars,” said Sushil Atreya, a SAM co-investigator at the University of Michigan.

SAM found that the Martian atmosphere has about four times as much of a lighter stable isotope (argon-36) compared to a heavier one (argon-38). This ratio is much lower than the Solar System’s original ratio, as estimated from measurements of the Sun and Jupiter.

The argon isotope fractionation provides clear evidence of the loss of atmosphere from Mars. (NASA/JPL)
The argon isotope fractionation provides clear evidence of the loss of atmosphere from Mars. (NASA/JPL)

This also removes previous uncertainty about the ratio in the Martian atmosphere in measurements from NASA’s Viking project in 1976, as well as from small volumes of argon extracted from Martian meteorites retrieved here on Earth.

These findings point to a process that favored loss of the lighter isotope over the heavier one, likely through gas escaping from the top of the atmosphere. This appears to be in line with a previously-suggested process called sputtering, by which atoms are knocked out of the upper atmosphere by energetic particles in the solar wind.

The solar wind may have helped strip Mars of its atmosphere over the course of many hundreds of millions of years (NASA)
The solar wind may have helped strip Mars of its atmosphere over the course of many hundreds of millions of years (NASA)

Lacking a strong magnetic field, Mars’ atmosphere would have been extremely susceptible to atmospheric erosion by sputtering billions of years ago, when the solar wind was an estimated 300 times the density it is today.

These findings by Curiosity and SAM will undoubtedly support those made by NASA’s upcoming MAVEN mission, which will determine how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost over time by measuring the current rate of escape to space. Scheduled to launch in November, MAVEN will be the first mission devoted to understanding Mars’ upper atmosphere.

Find out more about MAVEN and how Mars may have lost its atmosphere in the video below, and follow the most recent discoveries of the MSL mission here.

Source: NASA/JPL

Curiosity Ramps Up Complexity of Surface Ops with 1st ‘Touch and Go’ Maneuver – Cool Animation

Image Caption: Thanksgiving Greetings from Mars ! Curiosity snaps Head and Shoulders Self-Portrait on Sol 85 while posing at windblown ‘Rocknest’ ripple with eroded rim of Gale Crater in the background. This color mosaic was assembled from Mastcam 34 raw images snapped on Sol 85 (Nov. 1, 2012). See below the utterly cool animation of Curioity’s 1st ever ‘Touch and Go’ maneuver. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, NASA’s Curiosity mega Mars rover completed her first so-called “touch and go” maneuver – whereby she drives to and inspects an interesting rock and then moves on the same day to the next target of interest.

Check out the totally cool action animation below depicting Curiosity’s first ever “touch and go” movement and a subsequent martian drive of 83 feet (25.3 meters) conducted on Nov. 18.

“The ‘touch and go’ on Sol 102 went well, the data arriving in time for planning Sol 104”, says rover team member Ken Herkenhoff, of the US Geological Survey (USGS).

The science and engineering team guiding Curiosity is commanding her to accomplish ever more sophisticated and bold forays across the floor of Gale crater after finishing more than a month of investigations at the windblown ripple named “Rocknest.

On Nov 16, Curiosity drove 6.2 feet (1.9 meters) to get within arm’s reach of a rock called “Rocknest 3”. She deployed the arm and placed the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument onto the rock, and then took two 10-minute APXS readings of data to ascertain the chemical elements in the rock.

Thereafter Curiosity stowed her 7 foot (2.1 m) long arm and drove eastward toward the next target called “Point Lake”.

Curiosity is now inside the ‘Glenelg’ geologic formation which the science team selected as the first major science destination because it lies at the intersection of three diverse types of geology areas that will help unlock the secrets of Mars’ ancient watery history and evolution to modern times.

Image Caption: Panoramic mosaic shows gorgeous Glenelg snapped by Curiosity on Sol 64 (Oct. 10) with eroded crater rim and base of Mount Sharp in the distance. Curiosity is now touring inside Glenelg. This is a cropped version of the full mosaic as assembled from 75 images acquired by the Mastcam 100 camera. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

“We have done touches before, and we’ve done goes before, but this is our first ‘touch-and-go’ on the same day,” said Curiosity Mission Manager Michael Watkins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “It is a good sign that the rover team is getting comfortable with more complex operational planning, which will serve us well in the weeks ahead.”

During the holiday period, Curiosity is taking high resolution imagery, conducting atmospheric observations and making measurements with the DAN neutron spectrometer and her other state-of-the-art science instruments.

Meanwhile, the Curiosity science team is still ‘chewing over’ the meaning of the results from the first ever scoopful of soil spooned up at ‘Rocknest’ and ingested by the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) chemistry instrument on the rover deck that is designed to detect organic molecules – the building blocks of life.

“We’ve got a briefing on Monday [Dec 3] where we’ll discuss our results,” Curiosity project manager John Grotzinger, of Caltech, told me. Those SAM results will be announced to a flurry of interest during the annual meeting of the AGU (American Geophysical Union) being held from Dec 3-7 in San Francisco.

Learn more about Curiosity’s groundbreaking discoveries, SAM and NASA missions at my upcoming pair of free presentations for the general public at two colleges in New Jersey:

– – on Dec 11 at Princeton University and the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP) in Princeton, NJ at 8 PM.

– – and on Dec. 6 at Brookdale Community College, Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ at 8 PM – hosted by STAR astronomy

Ken Kremer

…..

Dec 6: Free Public lecture titled “Atlantis, The Premature End of America’s Shuttle Program and What’s Beyond for NASA” including Curiosity, Orion, SpaceX and more by Ken Kremer at Brookdale Community College/Monmouth Museum and STAR Astronomy club in Lincroft, NJ at 8 PM

Dec 11: Free Public lecture titled “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars (in 3 D)” and more by Ken Kremer at Princeton University and the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP) in Princeton, NJ at 8 PM – Princeton U Campus at Peyton Hall, Astrophysics Dept.

Is Historic Discovery imminent concerning Martian Organic Chemistry ?

Image caption: Curiosity scoops repeatedly into this Martian soil at windblown ripple dubbed ‘Rocknest’, shown in this mosaic, and delivered samples to the SAM chemistry instrument, on the robots deck, to search for any signatures of organic molecules – the building blocks of life. This color mosaic was stitched together from hi-res color images taken by the robots 34 mm Mastcam camera on Sols 93 and 74. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS/Ken Kremer / Marco Di Lorenzo

Has Curiosity made a ‘Historic’ science discovery with the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) chemistry instrument that analyzes Martian soil (see mosaic above) and is designed to detect organic molecules – the building blocks of life? Has Curiosity unambiguously and directly detected the first signatures of organics on Mars ? Is an announcement imminent?

Speculation is rampant that NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has made an earth-shaking discovery ‘for the history books’ , following a radio interview by NPR’s Joe Palca with the mission’s Principal Investigator, John Grotzinger, while sitting in his office at Caltech last week. NPR reported the story on Tuesday, Nov. 20.

“We’ve got a briefing on Monday [Dec 3] where we’ll discuss our results,” John Grotzinger told me.

Grotzinger will describe the SAM data and their potentially pivotal implications at the annual meeting of the AGU (American Geophysical Union) being held from Dec 3-7 in San Francisco. Many papers and results from the first three months of the Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) mission will be presented at the AGU meeting.

“The science team is analyzing data from SAM’s soil inspection, but not ready to discuss yet,” JPL Press spokesman Guy Webster informed me today.

It’s the Thanksgiving holiday period here in the US so the answers will wait a tad longer.


Image Caption: Curiosity Self Portrait with Mount Sharp at Rocknest ripple in Gale Crater. Curiosity used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the robotic arm to image herself and her target destination Mount Sharp in the background.SAM chemistry suite located on robot’s deck near Mast. To the left is the northern rim wall of Gale Crater. This color panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images snapped on Sol 85 (Nov. 1, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Curiosity had been collecting and analyzing Martian soil samples for more than a month at a windblown ripple called ‘Rocknest’. So far Curiosity has scooped into the Martian soil five times and delivered a single sample to SAM and two to the adjacent CheMin chemistry instrument.

“This data is gonna be one for the history books,” Grotzinger went on to say to NPR. “It’s looking really good.”

JPL Press spokesman Guy Webster advises caution and patience while damping down euphoria. He told me that the team is still trying to interpret and understand the analysis from SAM and seeking to clarify their meaning before making any premature conclusions.

“This is no change from the policy with past results from the mission, such as SAM’s atmosphere analysis or CheMin’s soil sample analysis: The scientists want to gain confidence in the findings before taking them outside of the science team,” Webster informed me.

“As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books. John was delighted about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week. He has been similarly delighted by results at other points during the mission so far,” Webster said.

Organic molecules are the basis for life as we know it, and they have never before been discovered on the Red Planet’s surface. I am an organic chemist and to me the detection of organics on Mars would indeed be “Earth-shaking”. But just a finding of organics alone does NOT mean we discovered life. Organics are a prerequisite to life. Life requires finding much more complex molecules, like amino acids and far more beyond that.

Furthermore, finding signatures of organics so close to the surface might be a surprising result when one recalls that highly destructive ionizing radiation bombards the Martian topsoil 24/7.

So, it’s wise for the MSL team to be abundantly cautious and recheck their results multiple times. They wisely waited for further data before prematurely announcing the discovery of Martian methane. Initial SAM atmospheric measurements detecting methane turned out to be false – they actually originated from contamination by residual traces of Florida air trapped in the interior chambers of SAM and were carried all the way to Mars.

If organics are detected in the dusty dunes at Rocknest, the implications could be vast and potentially point to their widespread distribution across Gale crater and beyond.

As renowned astronomer Carl Sagan once said; ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Stay tuned.

Learn more about Curiosity’s groundbreaking discoveries, SAM and NASA missions at my upcoming free public presentations:

– – on Dec. 6 held at Brookdale Community College, Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ at 8 PM – hosted by STAR astronomy

– – and on Dec 11 held at Princeton University and the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP) in Princeton, NJ at 8 PM.

Ken Kremer

…..

Dec 6: Free Public lecture titled “Atlantis, The Premature End of America’s Shuttle Program and What’s Beyond for NASA” including Curiosity, Orion, SpaceX and more by Ken Kremer at Brookdale Community College/Monmouth Museum and STAR Astronomy club in Lincroft, NJ at 8 PM

Dec 11: Free Public lecture titled “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars (in 3 D)” and more by Ken Kremer at Princeton University and the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP) in Princeton, NJ at 8 PM.

I Am SAM

Portrait of Curiosity assembled from raw images acquired with MAHLI on Sol 85 (Nov. 11. 2012 UTC) Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Composite by Jason Major.

Yesterday Mars Science Laboratory principal investigator John Grotzinger set the entire space science world abuzz with a tantalizing promise of “earthshaking” news on the horizon — literally “one for the history books,” as he put it in an interview with NPR. It seems one of Curiosity’s main science tools, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, has discovered… something… within recently-gathered samples, possibly in windblown-material scooped at a site called “Rocknest” earlier this month.

For now, though, the MSL team is keeping quiet on any more details until they’re reasonably sure they know what they have. Speculations abound — some serious, some not — but the bottom line is we’ll all have to wait for the official news to be released. In the meantime, here’s your chance to learn a little more about a fascinating high-tech Mars-tasting gadget called SAM.

About the size of a window air conditioning unit, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument is contained within the front section of NASA’s Curiosity rover. Actually a suite of three instruments, SAM consists of a Gas Chromatograph (GC), a Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS), and a Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS), as well as systems that manipulate and process samples.

Annotated photo of SAM with side covers removed

Although mostly contained entirely within Curiosity, SAM does have two small inlet tubes that allow access for soil samples gathered with the rover’s arm, as well as inlets for atmospheric gases.

On Earth all of these different instruments would fill a lab. But to fit them all inside the Curiosity, which is about the size of a Mini Cooper (but only half the mass), they were painstakingly reduced in size to fit within a single rectangular structure about 40 kg (88 lbs).

Here’s how SAM’s components work:

The Gas Chromatograph (GC)

The GC has six complementary chromatographic columns. The GC assembly sorts, measures, and identifies gases it separates from mixtures of gases by pushing the mixed gases through long, coiled tubes with a stream of helium gas. It sorts the gas molecules by weight: they emerge from the tube in order from lightest (out first) to heaviest (out last). Once the gases are sorted, the GC can direct quantities of the separated gases into the QMS or TLS for further analysis.

The Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS)

The QMS identifies gases by the molecular weight and electrical charge of their ionized states. It fires high-speed electrons at the molecules, breaking them into fragments. It then sorts the fragments by weight with AC and DC electric fields. The spectra generated by the QMS detector uniquely identify the molecules in the gases.

The Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS)

The TLS uses absorption of light at specific wavelengths to measure concentrations and isotope ratios of specific chemicals important to life: methane, carbon dioxide, and water vapor. Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights, and their ratios can provide information about Mars’ geologic — and possibly biologic — history.

The QMS and the GC can operate together in a GCMS mode for separation and definitive identification of organic compounds. The TLS obtains precise isotope ratios for C and O in carbon dioxide and measures trace levels of methane and its carbon isotope.

In addition to these three analytical instruments SAM also has mechanical support devices: a sample manipulation system (SMS) and a Chemical Separation and Processing Laboratory (CSPL). The CSPL includes high conductance and micro valves, gas manifolds with heaters and temperature monitors, chemical and mechanical pumps, carrier gas reservoirs and regulators, pressure monitors, pyrolysis ovens, and chemical scrubbers and getters.

The SMS has a wheel of 74 small cups where soil samples gathered by Curiosity’s robotic arm are prepared for analysis. 59 are quartz cups that are small ovens which can be heated to very high temperatures to pull gases from the powdered samples. 9 sealed cups are filled with chemical solvents for lower-temperature experiments designed to search for organic compounds. The other 9 cups contain calibration materials.

With this suite of precision tools SAM is specifically designed to search for evidence of a habitable environment on Mars, whether past or present. As it takes up over half of the rover’s scientific payload area, you could say that Curiosity itself is specifically designed to carry SAM around Mars (although we won’t tell that to the other instruments!)

Knowing only that the “exciting” news from Grotzinger and his team is coming from data gathered by SAM, one could safely assume that it has something to do with a discovery of organic chemistry of some sort… but we’ll all have to wait a few more weeks to know for sure. Still, as that is the primary objective of MSL and Curiosity is barely over 100 Martian days into its mission, even the smallest hint of big news has everyone’s attention.

Like any big institution, NASA would love to trumpet a major finding, especially at a time when budget decisions are being made.

– Joe Palca, NPR article

“This data is gonna be one for the history books,” said Grotzinger. “It’s looking really good.” (Read more here.)

Find out more about SAM and Curiosity’s other instruments here, and check out a quick video overview of SAM below:

(And for an even more in-depth look at how SAM works, read Emily Lakdawalla’s article on The Planetary Society’s blog here.)

The result of an international effort between scientists and engineers, SAM was built and tested at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Paul Mahaffy is SAM’s Principal Investigator.

Additional source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center SAM site. Inset images: SAM assembly/SAM solid sample inlets. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. 

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UPDATE: Apparently the NPR article that kickstarted all the rumors of big discoveries from Curiosity was a big misunderstanding… while data from the rover is “one for the history books,” according to P.I. John Grotzinger, that pertained to the mission as a whole — not any individual finding. Still, news from the MSL mission will be presented on Dec. 3 at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

“Rumors and speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect… At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics.” – JPL news release, Nov. 29, 2012

Read more here.

A Twisting Tale of Space Solar Power

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The dream of clean, consistent and renewable space solar power may become a reality, thanks to new research being done at The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

The concept of space solar power — gathering solar energy with satellites in low-Earth orbit and “beaming” it down to collection stations on the ground — has been around for decades, but technology restrictions and prohibitive costs have kept it in the R&D phases, with some doubting that it will ever happen at all.

Now, researcher Dr. Massimiliano Vasile, of the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has announced his team’s development of modular devices that could be used to gather solar energy in orbit, working atop an experimental “space web” structure developed by graduate students at the university’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“By using either microwaves or lasers we would be able to beam the energy back down to earth, directly to specific areas. This would provide a reliable, quality source of energy and would remove the need for storing energy coming from renewable sources on ground as it would provide a constant delivery of solar energy.”

– Dr. Massimiliano Vasile, University of Strathclyde

The web structure, part of an experiment called Suaineadh — which means “twisting” in Scottish Gaelic (and I believe it’s pronounced soo-in-ade but correct me if I’m wrong) — is made of a central hub that would go into orbit and release a square web of material that’s weighted at the corners. The whole apparatus would spin, keeping its shape via centrifugal force and providing a firm structure that other devices could build upon and attach to.

The Suaineadh experiment was successfully launched on March 19 aboard a Swedish sounding rocket and while it appears that the components worked as expected, communication was lost after ejection. As a result the central hub — with all its data — couldn’t be located after landing. A recovery mission is planned for this summer.

Meanwhile, Dr. Vasile is still confident that his team’s space solar project, called SAM, can help provide space solar power to remote locations.

A single inflatable SAM cell (M. Vasile)

“The current project, called SAM (Self-inflating Adaptable Membrane) will test the deployment of an ultra light cellular structure that can change shape once deployed,” Dr. Vasile explains. “The structure is made of cells that are self-inflating in vacuum and can change their volume independently through nanopumps.

“The independent control of the cells would allow us to morph the structure into a solar concentrator to collect the sunlight and project it on solar arrays. The same structure can be used to build large space systems by assembling thousands of small individual units.”

By collecting solar energy in space, where the constraints of day and night or weather variability are nonexistent, the satellites could ultimately beam clean energy down to otherwise off-the-grid locales.

“In areas like the Sahara desert where quality solar power can be captured, it becomes very difficult to transport this energy to areas where it can be used,” says Dr. Vasile. “However, our research is focusing on how we can remove this obstacle and use space based solar power to target difficult to reach areas.

“By using either microwaves or lasers we would be able to beam the energy back down to earth, directly to specific areas. This would provide a reliable, quality source of energy and would remove the need for storing energy coming from renewable sources on ground as it would provide a constant delivery of solar energy.”

If successful, the Suaineadh/SAM project could develop into a source of renewable energy for not only small, remote locations but also neighborhoods, towns and perhaps even entire cities.

“Initially, smaller satellites will be able to generate enough energy for a small village but we have the aim, and indeed the technology available, to one day put a large enough structure in space that could gather energy that would be capable of powering a large city,” Dr. Vasile says.

Read more on the University of Strathclyde Glasgow’s site here.

Image credits: The University of Strathclyde. The project is part of a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) study.